Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Vector Or Raster: Which to Illustrate With

Digital illustrators use programs that are based on raster or vector interpretation of data, and all of us who have worked with Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator have experienced how different the workings of the two programs can be. Illustrator tends to be used more by illustrators and graphic designers that tend to focus more on object making. Illustrator is referred to as “object oriented” software. Photoshop tends to be used more by illustrators, photographers and designers who lean more toward making pictures. Of course these assumptions are not absolute, and the developers of both Illustrator and Photoshop have blurred the lines between raster and vector as they have evolved. This comes from each program attempting to provide a totally functional software solution. For instance, Illustrator uses some raster display effects and offers the user an option to rasterize elements and to use raster painting effects. Alternatively, Photoshop offers Bezier pen tool functionality, the option to use vector masks, and to create and save outlines. So with the cross adaptation between raster and vector, these software programs offer illustrators new options that didn’t exist a few years ago. And on top of all this, software programs like InDesign allow the use of both raster and vector components in a single document. One thing that can help illustrators and graphic designers make the decision as to which direction to go is to consider the purpose for the illustration, i.e., the software choice is determined by how the image must function. In order to make that decision an understanding of properties of raster and vector imaging is indispensable.


Vector software is object oriented, a collection of objects that always retain their integrity. Straight and curved lines, gradients, and shapes including letterforms are an expression of mathematical descriptions. The positions, scale, and display attributes of all objects are noted mathematically using algebraic equations. Altering objects within an image results in an alteration of the mathematical data. This form of image processing preserves the integrity of the objects themselves. Because of this, there is no image degradation as a result of changing any of the objects attributes.  Even when an object, say a perfect circle, cannot be viewed properly on a monitor without some distortion, because monitors display in pixels (picture elements), the circle will exist as a perfect mathematical construct. And, with the right output device will appear so.

Illustrator vector file viewed in outline mode. © 2000 Don Arday.

Vector graphics are also referred to as “device resolution independent”, which is sort of an oxymoron. Although a vector document is dependent on a monitor or a printing device in order to be seen, the data itself always remains independent of any form of display or output. For instance, a vector image printed on a high-resolution 9600dpi printer will have a resolution of 9600dpi, and the same file printed on a low-resolution 300dpi printer, will have 300 as its resolution, and so on, but the original document data does not change.

Illustrator vector file viewed in preview mode. © 2000 Don Arday.

Vector files are much smaller than raster ones due to vector documents being based only on mathematical descriptions and not on pixels. For this reason vector files are extremely portable and very well suited to certain functions. Resizing a vector image is done by multiplying the mathematical description of the objects in the image by a scaling factor, so a file size of a vector illustrations will be the same whether it is output as a 3” x 4” spot illustration or it has been resized to be output as a 12’ x 16’ mural.

Small, efficient file sizes.
Infinite scalability of images without a loss of quality.
Excellent type rendering, manipulating, and editing abilities.
Ability to apply mathematical operations to image components.
Accuracy in rendering geometric forms.
Ability to edit image elements.

Ability to render continuous tone full color images.
Ability to globally edit color brightness, contrast, hue, saturation and value.
Ability to apply editing filters to images.


Raster software is pixel oriented. Raster files are made up of individual picture elements, or pixels that are perfectly aligned arrays of color and value. Pixels run edge to edge, covering the entire surface of the image. Straight and curved lines, and shapes are all combinations of pixels. The size, position and attributes of parts of an image are all relative to their makeup in pixels.  The resolution or size of a raster illustration relates to, and is limited by, the number of pixels contained within it. As a side note, raster images display truly on monitors because both raster images and monitor displays are made of pixels, whereas monitors simulate vector images, which have no pixels.

Raster images are “device resolution dependent”. The output quality of an illustration is dependent upon the resolution required by the display or output device. This means that illustrators must know the intended function for their illustration in order to properly create it. For instance, a 3” x 4” Photoshop illustration for use on the web can be created at 72ppi (pixels per inch), and it would display smoothly, but the same file printed on a 1200dpi image setter would look jagged and “pixilated”. In other words, the pixels that make up the illustration would be conspicuous to the viewer making the image quality appear very poor. Conversely, that same 3” x 4” illustration created at 300ppi would print nicely, but used on the web, it would slow down or pause the loading of a webpage. Due to device resolution dependence images are not upwardly scalable. (See Digital Image Resolution a prior post for more information on scaling.)

Photoshop raster version enhanced by raster image operation editing. © 2000 Don Arday.

Raster files are much larger than vector files. This is because all the attributes, including the location and color of every single, individual pixel must be recorded, not to mention any saved operations or specialized layer data. All this can result in massive file sizes for raster illustrations; especially those that are created for high-resolution output devices.

Ability to render continuous tone full color images.
Ability to globally edit color brightness, contrast, hue, saturation and value.
Ability to apply editing filters to images.

Large file sizes.
Poor scalability of files.
Poor ability to render, manipulate, and output type.
Poor ability to generate geometric forms.